One of the virtual community-building events about which I was most skeptical but which has ended up paying the greatest dividends for me has been online writing sessions.
I had heard about writing sprints and couldn’t imagine participating in them myself. How could writing in a group be any better than writing on one’s own? In fact, how could it not be worse, with the self-consciousness engendered by the group setting and the possibility of a competitive environment in which each writer bragged about their word count.
Then I interviewed Julie Duffy of StoryADay.org for The Indy Author Podcast and she mentioned that the Story A Day writers participated in online writing sprints. I was even more skeptical. Wouldn’t such an event combine the worse of an in-person session with the added downside of the awkwardness of online interaction?
However, I was curious, and not long after that, Julie opened a series of Story A Day online writing sprints to guest participants. I felt I couldn’t dismiss the technique without giving it a try.
I called in to a couple of Julie’s sessions … and it was great! The sessions began with a few minutes of socializing, then Julie would begin a series of timed writing sprints, during which participants’ microphones were muted, and in between which participants would share their progress, their challenges, and their support for their fellow writers.
For me the power of the sessions was that I was honor-bound not to step away from my work during the sprints to let the dogs out, put in a load of laundry, let the dogs in, make a cup of tea, let the dogs out … you get the picture. The fact that I had committed to the writing session kept me in my seat writing, and that commitment often extended beyond the session itself.
The fact that the session was online meant that a daily sprint was possible, whereas it would not have been feasible for me to travel to a physical location on that same schedule. It also enabled me to continue sprinting on my own without interruption, rather than having to travel home, during which time my mind would no doubt wander to other subjects.
I believe that one of the keys of Julie’s Story A Day sprints was that the participants knew each other from other interactions. I decided that I wanted to create my own writing sessions with people with whom I was already friends, and whose approach to their writing I knew to be similar to mine. I put the word out to my authors’ group and two members expressed interest. We have been holding daily writing sessions ever since.
I continue to enjoy the benefit I had experienced from the Story A Day sprints, which was that at a specified time each day—for us, it was 2:00 p.m.—I have to stop whatever else I am doing, open my work in progress, and work on it in a concentrated manner at least through the end of the session. This has been a tremendous help because before we instituted the sessions, I tended to get bogged down in marketing, promotion, and administrative work, and didn’t have a trigger to extract myself from it to focus my attention on my writing.
The added benefit with my own group was that our familiarity with each other enabled the sessions to function not only as writing sprints, but also as opportunities for plot brainstorming, career counseling, or general moral support.
Even if you are skeptical, as I was, I strongly recommend you give the online writing session a try. I’ve provided below some practices which have worked well for the group I participate in.
There are three roles that come into play for writing sessions: moderator, facilitator, and participant. Depending on the formality or informality of the group, these could be quite structured roles or more fluid, with one person sharing more than one role or multiple people sharing one role. Adapt as makes sense for your situation.
The moderator, perhaps the founder of the group, establishes the schedule for the sessions, the tool to be used, the goals of the sessions, and the ground rules to be observed. They or the facilitator will also sends out the invitations or post the sessions on a calendar, depending on the group’s scheduling approach.
The facilitator is responsible for managing a specific session. He or she greets participants as they arrive in the virtual room, provide technical assistance during the sprint if needed, manage any socializing within the established ground rules, time the sprints, and remind people to mute as necessary (or mute them him- or herself if the tool and ground rules allow).
The participants are responsible for complying with the ground rules and not monopolizing conversation during the pre-, intra-, and post-sprint chats.
Ground Rules & Logistics
Here are some ideas for ground rules and logistics that will smooth the way for successful writing sessions:
If you are establishing / moderating a new group, you have the benefit of being able to choose the participants.
Although I’m generally a believer in the benefits of casting one’s net wide in cultivating relationships in the writing and publishing communities, for writing sprints I believe that commonality among participants is helpful.
I recommend Zoom; it is becoming ubiquitous, it’s easier for host and participants to manage than Skype, and as of this writing a free account gives you unlimited time with one other participant and a forty minute limit with multiple participants. (Since my writing sessions generally last longer than forty minutes, I just spin up another Zoom session.)
If rather than forming a new group you are considering joining an existing group, ask about their goals, ground rules, and logistics ahead of time and assess them once you’re in a session. If the group isn’t right for you, don’t feel bad about letting the facilitator know that it just isn’t a good match and looking elsewhere. Invest the time to find a group that is a good fit; I believe you'll benefit from the practice.
Thank you to Julie Duffy of StoryADay.org for introducing me to the concept of the online writing sprint, and thank you to authors Jane Kelly and Lisa Regan for being my daily online sprinting partners.
Matty Dalrymple is the author of the Ann Kinnear Suspense Novels and is the principal at William Kingsfield Publishers.